Spain's ruling Socialists begin leadership primaries
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero launched the primaries on Saturday to pick his successor as Socialist party leader, reiterating his support for his deputy Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba.
"Today we are starting the process to choose our candidate for the elections in 2012," the outgoing prime minister told his party's federal committee at a meeting in Madrid.
Zapatero, who announced in April that he would not seek a third mandate, threw his support on Friday night behind the 59-year-old Rubalcaba, his interior minister and official number two in government.
Rubacalba confirmed his candidacy Saturday, saying, "I am at your disposal, I will put myself forward at the primaries."
Defence Minister Carme Chacon, who had previously been interested in the post, announced Thursday that she had decided against being a candidate.
"Alfredo possesses all the qualities that the party needs at the moment: He is liked by the Socialists, respected by our adversaries and feared by the terrorists of ETA," Zapatero said, in reference to the Basque separatist movement.
Although the Socialists took a pounding in last weekend's local polls amid a wave of protests against recent austerity measures and rising unemployment, Zapatero nevertheless talked up his party's re-election prospects.
Referring to Rubalcaba's past as an accomplished sprinter, Zapatero said that "someone who is able to run 100 metres in just over 10 seconds is more than capable of winning an election in 10 months."
The prime minister also shouldered the blame for the disaster in the municipal elections last weekend when the Socialists captured just under 28 percent of the total compared with 37 percent for the opposition Popular Party.
"Our electoral defeat is my responsibility," said Zapatero, attributing it in large part to his government's unpopular decision to cut public sector salaries and end some assistance programmes in order to reduce debt levels.
"I was aware that it could cost me when I decided to adopt these measures," he said.
Recent opinion polls have predicted that the conservative Popular Party of Mariano Rajoy will enjoy a comfortable victory over the Socialists in elections due by next March.
Demonstrators have occupied city squares throughout the country for almost two weeks, refusing to budge as they accused the major Spanish parties of leading Spain to economic ruin.
Infighting had erupted among the Socialists over how to choose a new leader after the party's humiliating rout.
Zapatero had called for internal primaries in which all 220,000 party members have a say on their next leader.
But, at the last moment, dissenters called for a congress of between 500 and 2,000 elected party members to rethink party strategy and decide on a single candidate.
Polls consistently show Rubalcaba, who served as education minister and minister for the presidency under Felipe Gonzalez in a previous Socialist government, is the most respected member of Zapatero's cabinet.
© 2011 AFP